In publishing, as in showbiz, timing is critical. Serendipity seems to have smiled on author Paul Fischer and his new book, “A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power.”
The extraordinary real-life events at the heart of the book are widely known: In 1978 North Korea abducted a South Korean film star and her ex-husband, a prominent director, and put them to work making movies for eight years.
But Fischer’s new book about this bizarre episode comes hot on the heels of the international imbroglio over Sony Pictures’ North Korea-themed film “The Interview” and allegations that the comedy so riled the hermit kingdom that leader Kim Jong Un — Kim Jong Il’s son and successor — ordered a crippling cyber attack on the Hollywood studio.
“The Interview” affair gives some much-needed contemporary resonance to “A Kim Jong-Il Production.” It reminds us not only of the elder Kim’s deep obsession with cinema and its importance as a propaganda tool in the impoverished Communist state but also the lengths to which a North Korean leader is willing to go to ensure what’s on the silver screen is to his liking.
This book may prompt even those who are skeptical that Pyongyang hacked Sony to ponder whether Kim Jong Un might have attacked the studio — perhaps as a bizarre act of filial piety toward North Korea’s No. 1 cinephile of all time, Kim Jong Il.
Fisher has organized “A Kim Jong-Il Production” into three relatively neat acts. First, he introduces actress Choi Eun-Hee and director Shin Sang-Ok and recounts their rise to stardom in South Korea in the 1950s and ‘60s
At the same time, he ably sums up the political atmosphere on both sides of the 38th parallel, the rise of Kim Jong Il as North Korea’s filmmaker-in-chief and how his well-received movies helped cement his position as heir to his father, the nation’s founding president, Kim Il Sung.
Act 2 details Choi and Shin’s early years in captivity in the North, during which they were kept apart following their separate abductions in Hong Kong. This section apparently relies heavily on Choi and Shin’s 900-page Korean-language memoir, published in 1988 but never translated into English. Nevertheless, the details about their existence of absurd luxury and unimaginable cruelty make for fascinating reading, and Shin’s two attempts at escape are page turners. (It’s shocking their saga has not been adapted into a Hollywood film.)
Act 3 begins with the couple’s reunion, choreographed of course by Kim Jong Il, and the pair’s decision to embrace the dictator’s wishes for them to take North Korean filmmaking to new heights and win international acclaim. This path, they decide, offers the best chance for them to travel abroad to shoot movies and attend festivals — and possibly flee their 24/7 phalanx of minders and guards.
It was a gambit that led them to freedom, eventually. Before then, though, the pair’s films, including the socialist-realist “Salt” and North Korea’s first martial-arts action movie, “Hong Kil-Dong,” were hits in North Korea and received some kudos abroad, mostly in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries.
At that time, the couple said repeatedly said they were working of their own free will for the Kim regime; later, they would explain those statements were made under duress while they bided their time to make a successful escape. Fischer musters a decent case for believing them, though some readers may find uncomfortable gaps in their story.
Still, it’s shocking when Fischer reminds us that Choi and Shin’s North Korean production “Emissary of No Return” played alongside “Gremlins” and the Coen Bros.’ “Blood Simple” at the 1984 London Film Festival, and that there was no apparent attempt by anyone to rescue the pair before they were hustled back to Pyongyang.
The couple did finally escape in 1986 and lived in Virginia and Beverly Hills (Shin would work under the name Simon Sheen in Hollywood). Eventually, they returned to South Korea, their later years a complicated and poignant mixture of personal recovery, professional decline and lingering political questions about their sojourn in the North.
Fischer is not the first to posit that Kim Jong Il approached ruling his country like a megalomaniacal movie man, the entire nation his stage, each citizen an actor whose lines were to be said as written, no player too precious to be summarily cut (i.e. killed) if they didn’t stay on-script. It is a rubric that is compelling for a good long while. But the ongoing horror film that is life in North Korea ultimately demands more complex analysis.
More than 35 years have passed since Shin and Choi’s abductions. The U.N. and rights groups have generated a litany of reports and resolutions about the regime. Millions have died of starvation.
Every day, a new despotic director, Kim Jong Un, produces fresh installments in the planet’s most frightful franchise of human suffering. Someday, somehow, will the world finally yell, “Cut”?
A Kim Jong-Il Production
The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power
Flatiron: 368 pp., $27.99